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Mayerling's music: Atmospheric, dark and decadent

David Nice on the sound world of Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling, arranged from the music of Liszt.

By David Nice (Writer, broadcaster and lecturer on music.)

4 April 2013 at 5.20pm | 1 Comment

Franz Liszt (1811–86) died less than three years before the horrible double suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and Mary Vetsera at Mayerling in January 1889, and almost a hundred years before his music was used for Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet based on Rudolf’s life. Like the Crown Prince, Liszt had suffered from depression in his precocious teens. His mother claimed that Liszt was cured by the booming cannons of Paris’s 1830 July Revolution.

Liszt went on to a distinguished career as a virtuoso concert pianist and a pioneering conductor. His gloomy romantic temperament, which found an outlet in the religious devotion of his later years, was offset by the serenity and sweetness of his compositions.

However, this gentle outlook is hardly an ideal match for the decadent, neurotic world of Mayerling, which was orchestrated from Liszt’s music by composer and conductor John Lanchbery in the 1970s. There’s no place in the ballet for the great melodies of Liszt’s two best-loved piano pieces, the Liebestraum no.3 and the ‘Sonetto del Petrarca no.104′ from Années de pèlerinage.

Instead, Lanchbery’s musical choices for Mayerling tend to relate to Liszt’s more complex works. He turned to the symphonic poems Tasso: lamento e trionfoMazeppaFestklänge and Héroïde funèbre, in which Liszt developed a more radical harmonic language. And for the first scene of Act II, when police raid the tavern in which Rudolf is carousing with his Hungarian friends and mistress Mitzi, Lanchbery used Liszt’s dramatic and sensual Mephisto Waltz no.1.

Liszt always liked to stress his Hungarian roots and he absorbed influences from this heritage into his music. Lanchbery drew on several of the Historical Hungarian Portraits to provide local colour in Mayerling, and orchestrated Trois Morceaux en style de danse ancien hongrois for the scene in which nationalist Hungarian officers plead their cause with Rudolf.

Lanchbery’s most important debt is to the sombre colouring of Liszt’s quirkiest – and possibly his greatest – orchestral work, A Faust Symphony (1854–7). The opening movement of this piece – a musical portrait of the character Faust – provides the funereal prelude of the ballet as well as the leitmotif of the pistol, which is fired once in the first- and second-act finales and twice in the ballet’s climactic, final scene.

For Mayerling’s fraught music of love and desire, Lanchbery used his own atmospheric arrangements of several of the Transcendental Études. Among these 12 masterpieces, which Liszt assembled in 1851, the last (‘Chasse neige’) provides material for the disturbing bedroom scene in Act I where Rudolf threatens his hapless bride Princess Stephanie with a revolver, before violently making love to her. The third (‘Paysage’) combines with the Faust music for the parallel scene in Act II between the prince and his new 17-year-old mistress. And the grand, complex 11th étude (‘Harmonies du soir’) sounds the note of death at the end of Act III.

Mayerling runs from 19 April – 15 June 2013. Tickets are still available. The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Celia Blakey, Lady Ashcroft, John and Susan Burns and Gail and Gerald Ronson through the Gerald Ronson Foundation.

By David Nice (Writer, broadcaster and lecturer on music.)

4 April 2013 at 5.20pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged by Franz Liszt, by John Lanchbery, by Kenneth Macmillan, Crown Prince Rudolf, Mary Vetsera, Mayerling, Princess Stephanie, Production

This article has 1 comment

  1. W J Whitaker responded on 1 June 2013 at 11:07am Reply

    Interesting and stimulating article .
    I know watch out for performances of some of these pieces, mainly in the normally regular places such as BBCradio programmes.
    has increased my enjoyment.

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